Back to the Stone Age

Chapter III

The Only Hope

Edgar Rice Burroughs

ONCE AGAIN von Horst struggled to rise; again he sank back defeated. Perspiration stood out in cold beads over his entire body. He wanted to curse and scream, but he remained silent. Silent, too, was Dangar. He did not cry out as had the others when death crept upon them. It was creeping upon him now—closer and closer. Von Horst raised himself to his left elbow; then he sank back, but as he did so he tried to reach for the gun at his hip—the gun he had tried unsuccessfully to reach before. This time he succeeded. His fingers closed upon the grip. He dragged the gun from its holster. Again, he partially raised himself upon an elbow.

The Trodon was almost upon Dangar when von Horst fired. Voicing a piercing scream. it leaped high in air, fluttered its wings futilely for an instant, and then fell heavily to the floor of the pit—dead.

Dangar looked at von Horst in amazement and in gratitude. “You have done it,” he said; “and I thank you, but what good will it do. How can we ever escape from this pit? Even if there were a way I could not take advantage of it—I who cannot move even a finger.”

“That remains to be seen,” replied von Horst. “When the paralysis has left you we shall find a way for that even as I have for this. But a moment since what would you have given for your chance of escaping the Trodon? Nothing, absolutely nothing; yet you are alive and the Trodon is dead. Who are you to say that the impossible cannot be accomplished?”

“Yon are right,” replied Dangar. “I shall never doubt you again.”

“Now to gain time,” exclaimed von Horst. He picked up Dangar, then, and carried him across the gap and laid him down beside the last victim that the adult Trodon had brought in. As he lay down beside him, he remarked, “The next one to hatch will get neither of us, for it will go to the other side of the gap.”

“But what about the old one when it brings in the next victim?” asked Dangar. “Won’t it see that our positions have been changed? And there is the body of one of its young, too; what do you suppose it will do about that?”

“I doubt that the Trodon will notice us at all,” replied von Horst, “but if it does, I shall be ready for it. I still have my pistol and plenty of ammunition; and as for the dead chicken, I’ll dispose of that immediately. I think we can use it.”

He rose then and dragged the carcass to one side of the pit, hiding it behind several eggs. Then he examined it closely, feeling of its skin. Apparently satisfied, he drew his hunting knife and fell to work to remove the skin from the carcass.

He worked rapidly but carefully, his whole attention riveted upon his task, so that it came somewhat in the nature of a surprise when the sunlight beating in through the mouth of the crater was momentarily disturbed.

Glancing up, he saw the Trodon returning with another victim; and instantly he flattened himself prone against the wall of the pit behind some eggs that he had arranged for this purpose, at the same time drawing his pistol.

Just the top of his head and his eyes protruded above one of the eggs, these and the cold, black muzzle of his weapon, as he watched the unsuspecting reptile deposit its victim beside Dangar. As he had anticipated, the creature paid no attention to the Pellucidarian; and a moment later it had vanished through the opening in search of other prey.

Without further interruption, von Horst completed the skinning of the fledgling; then he dragged the body to the spot that Dangar had previously occupied.

The Sarian laughed. “A clever way to dispose of the carcass,” he said, “if it works.”

“I think it will,” replied von Horst. “These brainless little devils are guided by instinct at first. They always go to the same spot for their first meal, and I’ll wager they’ll eat anything they find there.”

“But what are you going to do with the skin?”

“Wait and see. It constitutes the most important part of my plan for escape. I’ll admit that it’s a rather hare-brained scheme; but its the only one that I have been able to formulate, and it has some chance for success. Now I must go back and get busy at it again.” Von Horst returned to his work; and now he cut the skin into a continuous strip, starting from the outside. It took him a long time, and when he had completed the work it was necessary to trim the rough edges of the outside cut and scrape the inside surface of the long, flat strap that had resulted from his labors. While von Horst was measuring the strap by the crude tip-of-nose-to-tip-of-the-fingers method, his attention was attracted by the hatching of another Trodon.

“Sixty-six, sixty-seven, sixty-eight,” counted von Horst as he watched the fledgling devour the shell of its egg.

“That’s over two hundred feet. Should be more than enough.”

The other preliminaries having been gone through, the Trodon approached the skinned carcass of its brother. Both von Horst and Dangar watched with interest, as, without an instant’s hesitation, the reptile, fell upon the body and devoured it.

After it had flown away, von Horst crossed over and lay down beside Dangar. “You were right,” admitted the latter, “it never knew the difference.”

“I think they are so low in the scale of intelligence that they are guided almost exclusively by instinct, even the adults. That is why the old one did not notice that I was missing and that you were in a different place. If I am right, my plan will have a better chance of success.

“Do you feel any different, Dangar? Do you feel any life returning to your limbs?”

The Sarian shook his head. “No,” he replied, rather, dejectedly. “I’m afraid that will never happen, but I can’t understand how you recovered. That still gives me hope. Can you explain it?”

“I don’t know. I have a theory. You can see that all the victims of the Trodon are thin-skinned animals. That might indicate that the needle point of its tongue, by means of which the poison is injected, can either break only thin skin or can penetrate only to a shallow depth. While I was skinning the chicken I took off my leather jacket, and in examining it I discovered that the tongue of the Trodon ran through two thicknesses of leather and canvass lining at the back of the collar before entering my flesh. Look; see the round, green stain encircling the puncture. Perhaps some of the poison was wiped off, or perhaps the sting didn’t puncture me deeply enough to have full effect.

“Anyhow, I am more than ever convinced that no matter how much poison a victim receives, short of a lethal dose, he will recover eventually. You unquestionably received a larger dose than I, but you have been here longer than I; so it may not be long now before you will note signs of recovery.”

“I am commencing to have hope,” replied Dangar.

“Something will have to be done soon,” said the other. “Now that the paralysis has left me and my body is functioning normally, I am commencing to feel both hunger and thirst. I shall have to put my plan to the test at the first opportunity before I become too weak to carry through with it.”

“Yes,” said Dangar. “Get out if you can. Don’t think of me.”

“I’ll take you with me.”

“But that will be impossible—even if you can get out of this hole yourself, which I doubt.”

“Nevertheless, I shall take you; or I will not go myself.”

“No,” demurred Dangar. “That would be foolish. I won’t permit it.”

“How are you going to prevent it?” laughed von Horst. “Leave it all to me. The plan may fail anyway. But I’m going to start putting it into effect at once.”

He crossed the pit and took his long strap of reptile hide from behind the eggs where he had concealed it. Then he made a running noose in one end. This he spread on the floor at a point near where the adult Trodon would deposit its next victim. Carefully he ran the strap to his hiding place behind the eggs, left a coil there, and then took the remainder to a point beneath the mouth of the crater but just outside the circle of brilliant sunlight. Here he neatly coiled most of what remained of the strap, so that it might payout smoothly. He took great pains with this. The remaining loose end he carried to his hiding place; then he settled himself comfortably to wait.

How long he waited, of course he never knew; but it seemed an eternity. Hunger and thirst assailed him, as did doubts and fears of the effectiveness of his plan. He tried not to sleep, for to sleep now might prove fatal; but he must have dozed.

He awakened with a start to see the great Trodon squatting in the shaft of sunlight injecting its paralyzing poison into the neck of a new victim. Von Horst felt suddenly very weak. It had been a close call. Another moment, perhaps, and it would have been too late to test his plan. He doubted that he could hold out until the reptile returned again. Everything, therefore, depended upon success at the first cast of the die—his life and Dangar’s. Quickly he gathered his nervous forces under control. Again he was cool, collected. He loosened his pistol in its holster and took a new grip on the strap.

The Trodon crossed the pit, bearing the paralyzed victim to its place in the lethal circle. It placed one great hind paw in the open noose. Von Horst sent a running wave of the rope across the floor that lifted the noose up the creature’s leg above the ankle; then he gave a quick jerk. The noose tightened a little. Was it enough? Would it hold? As he had expected, the creature paid no attention to the strap. It appeared not to feel it, and von Horst was quite sure that it did not. So low was its nervous organization, he believed, that only a sharp blow on the leg would have carried any sensation to the brain.

After it had deposited the latest victim, the reptile turned toward the center of the pit, leaped into the air and fluttered aloft. Von Horst held his breath. Would the noose be shaken loose? Heaven forbid. It held. Von Horst leaped to his feet and ran toward the center of the pit, his pistol cocked and ready in his hand; and as the Trodon rose through the mouth of the crater and cleared the top of the hill, the man fired three shots in rapid succession.

He did not need the horrid screams of the wounded creature to tell him that his aim had been true, for he saw the great reptile careen in air and plunge from sight beyond the rim of the crater; then von Horst leaped for the end of the strap, seized it, braced himself, and waited.

There was danger that the body of the creature, tumbling down the steep side of the cone-shaped hill, might not come to rest before it jerked the strap from his hands; so he quickly wound it around his body and hurriedly made it fast. He might be killed; but he wouldn’t loose his strap or jeopardize his last chance of escape from the pit. For a moment the strap played out rapidly from the coil; then it stopped. Either the body of the Trodon had come to rest or the noose had slipped from the hind leg. Which?

Von Horst pulled on the strap fearfully. Soon it tautened; then he knew that it was still attached to the creature. A vague doubt assailed him as to whether the Trodon had been killed or not. He knew how tenacious of life such creatures might be. Suppose it were not dead? What dire possibilities such an event might entail!

The man tugged on the strap. It did not give. Then he swung on it with all his weight. It remained as before. Still, clinging to the loose end, he crossed the pit to Dangar, who was gazing at him wide-eyed with astonishment.

“You should have been a Sarian.” said Dangar with admiration.

Von Horst smiled. “Come,” he said. “Now for you.” He stooped and lifted the Pellucidarian from the ground and carried him to the center of the pit beneath the crater mouth; then he made the loose end of the strap secure about his body beneath the arms.

“What are you going to do?” asked Dangar.

“Just now I am going to make the inner world a little safer for thin-skinned animals,” replied Von Horst.

He went to the side of the pit, commenced breaking the eggs with the butt of his pistol. In two eggs, those most closely approaching the end of the period of incubation, be discovered quite active young. These he destroyed; then he returned to Dangar.

“I hate to leave these other creatures here,” he said, gesturing toward the unhappy victims; “but there is no other way. I cannot get them all out.”

“You’ll still be lucky if you get yourself out.” commented Dangar.

Von Horst grinned. “Well both be lucky,” be replied, “but this is our lucky day.” There was no word for day in the language of the inner world, where there is neither day nor night; so van Horst substituted a word from one of the languages of the outer world. “Be patient and you’ll soon be out.”

He grasped the strap and started up hand-over-hand. Dangar lay on his back watching him, renewed admiration shining in his eyes. It was a long, dangerous climb; but at length van Horst reached the mouth of the crater. As he topped the summit and looked down, he saw the carcass of the Trodon lodged on a slight ledge a short distance beneath him. The creature was quite evidently dead. That was the only interest that the man had in it; so he turned at once to his next task, which was to haul Dangar to the mouth of the crater.

Von Horst was a powerful man; but his strength had already been tested to its limit. and perhaps it had been partially sapped by the long period of paralysis he had endured. Added to this was the precarious footing that the steep edge of the crater mouth afforded; yet he never for a moment lost hope of eventual success; and though it was slow work, he was finally rewarded by seeing the inert form of the Pellucidarian lying at the summit of the hill beside him.

He would have been glad to rest now, but his brief experience of Pellucidar warned him that this exposed hilltop was no place to seek sanctuary. He must descend to the bottom, where be could see a few trees and a little stream of water, take Dangar with him, and search for a hiding place. The hillside was very steep, but fortunately it was broken by rudimentary ledges that offered at least a foothold. In any event, there was no other way to descend; and so von Horst lifted Dangar across one of his broad shoulders and started the perilous descent. Slipping and stumbling, he made his slow way down the steep hillside; and constantly be kept his eyes alert for danger. Occasionally he fell, but always managed to catch himself before being precipitated to the bottom.

He was fairly spent when he finally staggered into the shade of a clump of trees growing beside the little stream that he had seen from the summit of the hill. Laying Dangar on the sward, he slaked his thirst with the clear water of the brook. It was the second time that he had drunk since he had left the camp where the great dirigible, O-220, had been moored. How much time had elapsed he could not even guess; days it must have been, perhaps weeks or even months; yet for most of that time the peculiar venom of the Trodon had not only paralyzed him but preserved the moisture in his body, keeping it always fresh and fit for food for the unhatched fledgling by which it was destined to be devoured.

Refreshed and strengthened, he rose and looked about. He must find a place in which to make a more or less permanent camp, for it was quite obvious that he could not continue to carry Dangar in his wanderings. He felt rather helpless, practically alone in this unknown world. In what direction might he go if he were free to go? How could he ever hope to locate the O-220 and his companions in a land where there were no points of compass? when, even if there had been, he had only a vague idea of the direction of his previous wanderings and less of the route along which the Trodon had carried him?

As soon as the effects of the poison should have worn off and Dangar was free from the bonds of paralysis, he would have not only an active friend and companion but one who could guide him to a country where he might be assured of a friendly welcome and an opportunity to make a place for himself in this savage world, where, he was inclined to believe, he must spend the rest of his natural life. It was by far not this consideration alone that prompted him to remain with the Sarian but, rather, sentiments of loyalty and friendship.

A careful inspection of the little grove of trees and the area contiguous to it convinced him that this might be as good a place as any to make a camp. There was fresh water, and he had seen that game was plentiful in the vicinity. Fruits and nuts grew upon several of the trees; and to his question as to their edibility, Dangar assured him that they were safe.

“You are going to stay here?” asked the Sarian.

“Yes, until you recover from the effects of the poison.”

“I may never recover. What then?”’ Von Horst shrugged. “Then I shall be here a long while,” he laughed.

“I could not expect that even of a brother,” objected Dangar. “You must go in search of your own people.”

“I could not find them. If I could, I would not leave you here alone and helpless.”

“You would not have to leave me helpless.”

“I don’t understand you,” said von Horst.

“You would kill me, of course; that would be an act of mercy.”

“Forget it,” snapped von Horst. The very idea revolted him.

“Neither one of us may forget it,” insisted Dangar. “After a reasonable number of sleeps, if I am not recovered, you must destroy me.” He used the only measure of time that he knew—sleeps. How much time elapsed between sleeps or how long each sleep endured, he had no means of telling.

“That is for the future,” replied von Horst shortly. “Right now I’m interested only in the matter of making camp. Have you any suggestions?”

“There is greatest safety in caves in cliff sides,” replied Dangar. “Holes in the ground are often next best; after that, a platform or a shelter built among the branches of a tree.”

“There are no cliffs here,” said von Horst, “nor do I see any holes in the ground; but there are trees.”

“You’d better start building, then,” advised the Pellucidarian, “for there are many flesh eaters in Pellucidar; and they are always hungry.”

With suggestions and advice from Dangar, von Horst constructed a platform in one of the larger trees, using reeds that resembled bamboo, which grew in places along the margin of the stream. These he cut with his hunting knife and lashed into place with a long, tough grass that Dangar had seen growing in clumps close to the foot of the hill

At the latter’s suggestion, he added walls and a roof as further protection against the smaller arboreal carnivora, birds of prey, and carnivorous flying reptiles.

He never knew how long it took him to complete the shelter; for the work was absorbing, and time flew rapidly. He ate nuts and fruit at intervals and drank several times, but until the place was almost completed he felt no desire to sleep.

It was with considerable difficulty, and not without danger of falling, that he carried Dangar up the rickety ladder that he had built to gain access to their primitive abode; but at length he had him safely deposited on the floor of the little hut; then he stretched out beside him and was asleep almost instantly.

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